Speaking Up for Change: An interdisciplinary writing program at CSUMB shows students the power words can have.
Thursday, January 29, 2004
Ten years before she founded the Creative Writing and Social Action Program at CSU Monterey Bay, Frances Payne Adler wrote a poem, “Raising the Tents,” that presaged her future work:
In the first years of the twenty-first century, it was discovered
that voices, all the unheard ones, didn’t die at the end of life.
Instead, they spent thousands of years, wandering underground.
It was an earthquake like no other.
Today, in the heart of earthquake country, the students in Adler’s groundbreaking writing program at CSUMB are unearthing buried voices. On this campus that was once a military base, they are learning to break silences, witness their lives, and be engaged and responsible members of their communities while honing writing and critical inquiry skills.
The program’s core faculty members—Diana Garcia, Debra Busman, and Adler—have created a holistic approach to creative writing based on the pursuit of social justice. They have developed a discipline that regards art as an academic pursuit and an act of social inquiry.
It’s a revolutionary idea, and since its inception in 1996, CSUMB’s Creative Writing and Social Action Program has evolved into one of the most influential programs of its kind in the nation. Bucknell University recently brought a team to CSUMB to study it, and the University of Wyoming has expressed a desire to do the same.
Housed within an interdisciplinary humanities institute, rather than a traditional English department, the CWSAP helps students acquire the critical, creative, and cultural research tools necessary to create what poet Adrienne Rich has called “the account of our lives.” It couldn’t work as well as it does without the collective experience and dedication of the three women leading it.
Adler has been at the forefront of social action art for two decades. In 1984, she collaborated with photographer Kira Corser to create Home Street Home, an exhibition of poems, stories and photographs targeting homelessness. The project was shown in the State Capitol Building in Sacramento and the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, and its success proved to Adler how creative art could be used to effect change.
“How can creative writing do anything? Can you measure its importance?” Adler asks. “The human perspective of these projects—the narratives and photos, the short stories, the poems break through denial—they open the heart and once the heart is open, then the studies can really begin.”
Garcia, who joined the CSUMB faculty in 1998, is a native of the San Joaquin Valley. She was born in Camp CPC, a farm labor camp owned by the California Packing Corporation. Her first collection of poetry, When Living Was a Labor Camp, was selected as an American Book Award Winner in 2001. Garcia embodies the program’s commitment to the university’s Latino and Chicano communities, and focuses on helping her Spanish-speaking students find their voices.
“What Diana Garcia brought to the program was enormous,” says Adler. “Her perspective and experience, all of her important heritage, it is a vital part of what we do here.”
Busman is a writer and activist whose experience with social action began in the womb (her mother is a prominent union organizer). In her essay, “You Gotta Be Ready for Some Serious Truth to Be Spoken,” Busman describes the emotional impact of teaching creative writing and social action:
“When you ask students to break silence, to bear witness, to connect with the meaning of their own personal lives within the larger societal frame, you gotta be ready for the truths that fly out, crawl out, peep out and scream out from under the thick walls of practiced silence. You gotta be ready for stories of border crossings, coyotes and cops, night beatings, wife beatings, baby beatings, date rapes, gang rapes, daddy rapes, gunshots and chemo, pesticides, HIV, AZT, protease inhibitors, and the pink-cheeked 19-year-old who says, ‘Hey, next Tuesday I’ll have five years clean and sober; can we have a cake in class?’”
The Creative Writing and Social Action Program is informed by “service learning”—the process by which CSUMB students in many different departments go out into the community to put into practice what they’re studying. Creative writing students volunteer in places such as shelters, soup kitchens, medical clinics and legal centers in order to get firsthand experience and meet the people for whom these situations are a reality.
“They don’t just volunteer, it’s a process of analysis and reflection,” says Garcia. “Students work at the service-learning site and learn about the specific needs and life histories of their subjects. It becomes less of an abstraction and more a reality.”
So what kinds of things are these students producing?
A recent project by Adler’s Social Action Writing class is a play entitled From Front Lines to Front Yards: The New Face of War. Produced at the Teledramatic Arts and Theater Studio in December, the play is a collection of dramatic monologues culled from student interviews with tri-county residents who have direct experiences with war.
Juxtaposing the voices of both soldiers and civilians, Front Lines is a powerful survey of those affected by 20th-century conflict. It is also faultlessly researched and presented. Backlit by photographs and maps, December’s staged reading was a poignant socio-historic document made all the more powerful by the presence of many of its subjects in the audience.
Another notable student project was Education As Emancipation: Women On Welfare Speak Out, a book of lived experiences and perspectives of women on welfare.
In a time when new welfare reform legislation threatens single mothers on welfare who are currently in college programs seeking degrees and self-sufficiency, Women On Welfare was created to educate the community and promote civic dialogue.
The book was presented at state and national conferences, including the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, and Adler says it had an impact on student retention policy.
In addition to field research projects like these two, many CWSAP students turn to their own personal histories for inspiration, breaking difficult silences in order to understand how and in whose interest their silences were constructed. They are urged to research and retrieve their lost family stories and the stories of their communities.
As her senior Capstone creative production—a graduation requirement for CSUMB students—former Social Action Writing Program student Julie Bliss retrieved lost stories of her Choctaw ancestors while integrating creative writing and photography with the study of Native American history, literature, and culture to create Choctaw: Retracing the Steps of My Heritage.
The CWSAP is a popular program—since 2001, enrollment has tripled. Both Adler and Garcia attribute this growth to 9/11.
“It really woke a lot of people up, obviously,” explains Adler. “‘What can I do with a Social Action major?’ has become ‘I want to do something. I want to have an effect.’”